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November 16th, 2004 was a red letter day on both sides of the screen. The original Half-Life had redefined the FPS as an immersive experience instead of merely a series of missions, and no-one expected its follow-up to do anything less. Few were disappointed. In City 17, Valve created one of the most coherent and ambitious worlds ever seen in gaming—and if it looks a little primitive now, it s because so many since have followed in its footsteps. BioShock Infinite s opening for instance works almost entirely to Half-Life 2 s now dog-eared playbook, offering greater fidelity and a more exciting city, but recognizably the same style.
What Half-Life 2 really brought to the industry wasn t new ideas… though it absolutely had them… but demonstration after demonstration of how things both could and should be. Alyx Vance for instance was an effective sidekick and a fun character, but it was her ability to make a connection with the player through things like eye contact that elevated her above her others—something shared by fellow Source engine game Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, especially with characters like Jeanette and your pet ghoul Heather. She could shoot a worried look. She could smile, and have the smile go further than her lips. She could go directly from being your wing-woman to interacting with the world, from having conversations to fixing something, all as smoothly as Half-Life managed to never break perspective as you went from random lab geek to savior of two different worlds. She d even climb and vault over things instead of simply walking around the old fashioned way, easier as that would have been to script.
That sense of flow is what really defined Half-Life 2—sequences bleeding into one another to create the feel of an unbroken journey (give or take a loading screen). It was a game of smooth traversal around the maps, of combat bleeding into story, and each major section, most famously zombified Ravenholm, casually experimenting with the formula. Every cool bit offered something new and most left us wanting more, even if the radical shifts did take away much of the original Half-Life s thematic consistency. Every not-so-cool bit, like the dull start of Sandtraps (a vehicle section that paled in comparison to what Valve was able to pull off by Episode 2) was short enough not to be that big a deal, and something else was always on its way. While admittedly the story sequences are interminable by modern standards, the action was all about peaks and troughs that allowed both intensity and time to savor the craft.
On top of that came the details; a hundred things designed to be absorbed rather than directly noticed. The soundscape for instance, with the Combine announcements using medical terminology to describe uprising—Gordon Freeman as a staph infection —or the Combine s logo—an outreached claw almost, but not quite, absorbing a small world. It s a subtle detail, but one of many told through level design rather than audio logs or cutscenes. Others include visiting rusted playgrounds of a world without children, and seeing the empty seas that have left ships high and dry—the terraforming inflicted on the natural world mirroring the shift from old and human to new and alien that you see throughout City 17.
One of the most subtle, though much borrowed since, is the way that Valve tends to show new mechanics off three times—first with no pressure, then some pressure, and then for real to be sure the player has grasped and understood it, before it becomes an assumed skill. The gravity gun for instance. First you just move a solid box into position to meet Alyx. Then her robot Dog throws other boxes at you for you to catch. Then, it s zombie fighting time.
Speaking of fighting zombies, we can t overlook the physics engine—used in Ravenholm to let you hurl sawblades. Half-Life 2 was one of the first FPS games to go big on physics, for two basic uses. The first was, honestly, showing off. They were a novelty then, which came through in a lot of puzzles like pushing barrels under a platform to be able to cross it. Looking back, they re a little eye-rolling. At the time though, they were pretty cool. It s no secret that Half-Life 2 was at least in part a demo of Source, with these bits standing out even at the time as largely the equivalent of early 3D card lens flare effects. Cool, but gimmicky. When it showed them off, or put us in a vehicle, it was at least partly saying Look what we can do!
The big benefit though was creating a world that felt right, in stark contrast to the largely static worlds of the previous generation; of games like Return To Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor. Again, yes, it s a bit showy to have a guard at the start insist you pick up and throw a cup into a trash can just to shout PHYSICS! What mattered though was that from there you both feel the benefit of them in every interaction with the world, big and small, and immediately start bemoaning their absence in any game that doesn t have them. The rolling and floating of flaming barrels in water. Debris flying off as it felt like it should.
It all added, in much the same way that the original Half-Life s responsive skeletal animation system instantly made conventional frame-based animations intolerably stiff. When Valve called its behind-the-scenes book Raising The Bar, it wasn t kidding. Half-Life 2 was an amazing game, but its crucial, lasting influence was less about the new things it did (as important as they ve been) as showing how the familiar deserved to be done.
Which of course brings us to its shining achievement—Steam. To sum up Steam s unpopularity in 2004 would leave no words left to describe ebola, lawyers, or Piers Morgan. And not without cause. It was buggy, it was ugly, there was no missing that Valve was outright forcing it down our throats out of nowhere, and the much crappier bandwidth of the day made being told to download games of this size almost offensive in its arrogance. It would be a long, long time before Steam even got close to the service that at least most of us know and love today, instead of its name just getting tacked onto the words ing pile of shit.
But. With Half-Life 2, Valve had a game that managed to get the necessary traction to create the service we know today, and while nobody would claim it s perfect, nothing else has done so much to legitimize and make digital distribution work. Much as it took Apple to break the music industry s obsession with DRM on MP3 files, it took Steam to show the whole industry that the game had changed. The idea that you d be able to redownload your games in perpetuity for instance was heresy to companies that at best wanted that to be another service. Being able to download them onto any machine instead of them being locked to a single PC, or maybe three, or five? That just wasn t done. Valve was the first major company to build a digital download service that people actually wanted to use, that made the experience of buying games online better. Without Half-Life 2 though, who would have used it? Without that audience, who would ever have agreed to let a competitor sell their games? Half-Life 2 didn t just give the FPS a shot in the arm, it changed the entire industry.
It wasn t a perfect game. It was far more a series of cool things than Half-Life s journey, it was heartbreaking to be taken out of City 17 almost immediately in favor of being consigned to the countryside, the story was primitive and a few of the set-pieces dragged on far too long. It held up pretty well for years, but looking back, yes, it s now a bit long in the tooth. Few games though have had a more lasting impact in so many ways, or can be deservedly held up as both paragon and pioneer. Fewer still have done it so well, they re still being copied a decade later.
Now then, Valve, about that Half-Life 3…
Every year, the month of November is notable for two events. The beginning of the month is marked by people muttering to themselves "Oh my God, it's November already?" and the end, in the U.S. at least, is celebrated by surrounding ourselves with cousins whose kids' names we can't remember and eating food until we explode.
This particular November is also notable for a milestone in PC gaming: the 10th anniversary of the release of Half-Life 2. This will no doubt inspire many nostalgic replays of Valve's landmark FPS, and Mod of the Week is here to make a suggestion about how best to walk another mile in Gordon Freeman's boots.
There's no shortage of full-conversion mods for HL2, and many of them are great and well worth your time, but today we're looking at mods that keep the original story intact as opposed to providing an entirely new experience. Enhancement mods, in other words. What's actually out there to improve the game?
Our first stop was to pay a visit to the simply named "Update" mod. Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two provided a bit of a graphical upgrade over the original game, mostly in the form of better textures and slicker effects, but Valve never bothered to retrofit HL2 with these improvements. Modder Filip Victor took it on himself, but unfortunately, when HL2 was moved over to SteamPipe, it wound up breaking the mod. A fix, while promised in 2014, has yet to materialize.
There were also rumblings about an ENB for HL2 that was sadly never released by the modder who did the same for the original Half-Life. No luck there. I also installed this ENB that purports to add depth-of-field and SSAO, but despite following the instructions I wasn't able to activate it in-game. Hurm. I'm zero for three.
That leaves us with pretty much a single option for souping up HL2 graphically: FakeFactory's Cinematic Mod. The name probably sounds familiar: it's been around for a while and there were a lot of complaints that it went too far: not just adding higher resolution textures, advanced HDR, new props, and dynamic shadows, but replacing the game's character models with new, completely different looking HD versions and adding music from the new Batman films.
While I agree that most of the new character models are tremendously off-putting and the music is a baffling choice, it's important to point out that Cinematic Mod is almost ridiculously customizable. You can run the mod without the replacement character models, leave out the new music, and tailor the look and even the difficulty of the mod to a high degree.
In fact, I'd recommend turning off a few things. The enhanced bloom is a bit much, and the head-bob made me nauseous (and I can't ever recall getting motion-sick from an FPS before). I enjoyed playing with the new weapons: a laser-dot pistol and some meatier machine-guns are fun, and iron sights and weapon recoil adds a bit more of a shooty feeling to the shooting (again, you can choose to play with the standard weapons as well). As far as the new models go, I actually liked the new Combine metrocops and soldiers the mod adds: they're bulkier and more dangerous looking without being a major departure from the originals.
As for the overall look of the mod, I liked a lot of it. It's slicker and shinier, and many of the new textures are fantastic. It does still go a bit far: I don't really need video screens flashing the word OBEY to get the idea that I'm in a dystopia, and some of the new graffiti textures are hardly subtle. Still, for the most part, it's very impressively done.
If you decide to use it, be prepared for a hefty 10 gig file, and torrent it or else you'll have to download it as sixteen separate .rar files (ugh). You can find it here, and here's a video detailing installation and configuration.
What else can you do to spice up your visit to City 17? Well, if you don't mind going full-on wacky, you can always try two previous Mod of the Week picks. There's Crylife (actually a submod for the high-octane SMOD), which gives Gordon Freeman the nanosuit from the Crysis games, and there's also gmDoom (actually an addon for Garry's Mod) that lets you play HL2 with weapons and monsters from Doom. You'll still be able to enjoy the story beats of the original game while spawning cyberdemons or running around with your cloak engaged.
Ultimately, though -- and I realize this is an odd conclusion for a mod column to reach -- I'd recommend replaying Half-Life 2 without any mods whatsoever. Yes, it's been ten years, and sure, the game is definitely beginning to show its age. But this mod enthusiast is happy to admit that some games just don't need improvement.
Everyone still wants Half-Life 3. People feel its continued absence like a pain in the gut. Some people carry this weight around with them every day, and may well do so for the rest of their lives. Some people, when you say something nice has happened, silently whisper to themselves "Half-Life 3 confirmed?"
This doesn't mean we ought to 'engulf' the lives of Valve employees, as a press release for a new crowdfunding campaign calls upon us to do. A ploy concocted by two interns at New Mexico ad firm McKee Wallwork & Co., the campaign is seeking $150,000 to organise a series of events and advertising sprees intended to persuade Valve to develop the anticipated installment.
It's a unique idea - and it's probably not as dodgy as it sounds - but some of the wording is very problematic indeed, especially in light of recent harassment campaigns in the games industry. According to the press release received by VentureBeat, Half-Life fans have "never truly shown a united front", though "a little concentrated effort might finally get us what we want. The press release headline reads Indiegogo campaign to engulf Valve employee s lives.
VentureBeat reached out to the campaign creators Chris Salem and Kyle Mazzei, and this is what they had to say regarding the potential for harrassment. Obviously, lines like [engulf people's lives] is a little sensationalized to get people s attention, Salem said. But we think we re doing everything in a good-hearted way. We aren t going to have people camped out in front of Valve headquarters for weeks at a time. It s just going to be a one-day thing.
The IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign involves the purchase of Google Ad Words, mobile billboards, a Valve doorstop campaign populated by Gabe Newell look-alikes and a concert. It's currently raised $36.
There have been a lot of visions of the post-apocalypse, but if you've been waiting for one in which a sleepy-voiced robot guides you through a series train-based environmental puzzles in the year 2525, then you're in luck. Also, you're a little strange. Also, this mod is a little strange, even in name. It's called Steam, Tracks, Trouble & Riddles and it's for Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
First, some back-story, which is presented nicely through a series of hand-drawn images. It seems the Cuban Missile Crisis didn't end so agreeably in this reality. The nukes were launched, humans were essentially wiped out, and... well, frankly, how that leads to solving train puzzles in Berlin in the distant future, I'm not entirely sure. The important thing is, there's a bunch of train puzzles and a friendly robot to help you solve them.
It's notable that Ross Scott voices the robot, which is cool, though his voice has been slowed down to the point where it feels like it could be anyone reading the lines, which is sort of an odd choice. I'm fairly sure Scott didn't write the script, either, as the robot isn't particularly funny. The robot is, however, well designed and animated, and I enjoy the fact that he has another, smaller robot living in his head who pops out now and then. Also, for a robot who trundles around on a single wheel, I find him much more enjoyable than, say, Claptrap, especially in terms of volume.
The first thing you do in the mod is sort of the worst thing: you manipulate the slowest-moving crane ever built into picking up the parts of a railway handcar and drop them into a pile. It's not hard, and there's only three pieces, it just takes a while. If you can power through it, things get more enjoyable.
Once built, you drive your handcar along the tracks, stopping at occasional obstacles. Maybe there's a bridge that's not aligned properly, or a wall that needs to be destroyed, or some other sort of obstruction or obstacle on the track, meaning you'll need to stop, get out, look around, and figure out what the heck you're supposed to do. Often, there's a bit of guesswork involved before you can even start working on the puzzles. A series of valves and pipes means you'll need to open some and close others, obviously, but it can take a while to figure out exactly why the ones that need to be closed need to be closed. Y'know?
Of course there's a generator puzzle, and some batteries have to be fetched to power certain devices, and this being built in Half-Life 2, you'll naturally need to find a cable with a giant plug to plug into a giant plug-hole at some point. There are also some explosive barrels to be disarmed, as well as some electrified tracks and poison muck to avoid falling into. Finally, you'll face a massive gauntlet of moving trains while traversing narrow passages near the end, which is sort of like playing Frogger from a first-person perspective. You can't sprint in this mod (for some reason) but hopping will speed you up. I recommend hopping. I recommend hopping everywhere, in fact.
Help from your robot pal is somewhat intermittent. Sometimes he'll tell you exactly what to do, but other times he'll only provide encouragement. "Good job!" he said at one point, when I had been opening and closing valves more or less at random for several long minutes. It wasn't terribly specific, but at least he'd let me know I'd done something right, which helped me figure out the rest of the puzzle.
This isn't a terribly long mod, maybe two hours, unless you get stuck. (If you do, there's a lovely and fully comprehensive walk-through PDF created by the modder in the download section below). It's a bit uneven: some portions are really beautifully done, especially the robot and some of the custom machinery you'll need to manipulate, while some portions of the levels can feel a bit plain and uninspired. It's also not something to speed through: a lot of time needs to be spent just wandering around the various puzzles, experimenting and trying to determine what needs to be done. If you're looking for a thoughtful, mostly gentle, moderately paced puzzle mod, though, this is a nice one.
Installation: It's easy! Just download it here, open the .rar file, and drop the contents into your /sourcemods folder in your Steam directory. Then restart Steam and you'll see S.T.T.&R. in your Steam library, ready to launch.