PC Gamer

A while back, I took a look at some Half-Life 2 improvement mods, and ultimately determined that the best way to play Valve's 2004 masterpiece was, well, without any mods whatsoever.

At the time, one of the mods I tried to look at for the piece was called Half-Life 2 Update, created by modder Filip Victor. It had been in the works for a while, but the move to SteamPipe broke it, and there had been little news about it since. Well, it's finally arrived as a free download on Steam.

The Update mod promises a host of visual upgrades to HL2, including detailed shadows, better interior lighting, environmental fog, particle effects, better water reflections, and more world detail. It also fixes bugs and improves scripted sequences and the collision system. The ultimate goal was to improve the look of the game without making any drastic changes along the lines of the FakeFactory's Cinematic Mod.

I downloaded it and gave it a try. It's all a bit subtle—it's not at all like playing a brand new game or anything like that—but definitely noticeable. The game does look better, and crisper. There's more detail, the shadows are definitely nicer, the water looks great, and it brings Half-Life 2 closer to the visual improvements we saw in Episodes 1 and 2.

 It's not something you'll call people excitedly into the room to see, but that was never really the point, and there's only so much you can do with a decade-old game unless you want to completely overhaul it from top to bottom. I'd say, if you've been looking for an excuse to play Half-Life 2 again... well, first, who needs an excuse? It's still fun. Except for the Hoppers. The Hoppers are dumb. 

Also, who wants to tiptoe over the sandy beaches again, really? And Ravenholm has kind of lost it's scariness by now. And the boss fight at the end, where the boss is basically a box you have to knock the sides off... eh, skip that bit.

But otherwise, it's a fine reason to play your favorite parts of the game again.

While Filip Victor is the developer of Update, he wasn't alone in his work. He had help from the Half-Life community, who helped him compile lists of bugs and issues. The mod also includes community commentary: select it from the main menu and you'll find nodes scattered throughout the game allowing you to listen to the musings of several YouTubers and Ross Scott, creator of the video series Freeman's Mind.

You can view a PDF of the changes and the ideas behind the mod right here. And, here's a nice comparison video that probably does a much better job of showing off the changes than my screenshots do.

Or, just download it from Steam and the next time you get a hankering for some Half-Life 2, try the Update version.

PC Gamer

Valve has announced that tickets for the 2015 edition of the Dota 2 International will go on sale on March 27 in two separate "waves," the first beginning at 10 am PDT and the second at 10 pm PDT.

Fans who want to make the trip to Seattle to see the big event live and in person may buy tickets from either or both waves, but will be limited to a maximum of five per household. Tickets will sell for $99 each and seating will be general admission only (please don't fight), although Valve said that information about "the VIP experience" will be released at some point in the future. Last year's VIP package cost $499 per person, so you can likely expect something in a similar range this time around.

This year's International, pitting the top 16 teams against one another in a take-no-prisoners brawl for the belt, will run from August 3-8 at the KeyArena in Seattle, Washington. Tickets may be purchased via this link to Ticketmaster; if you're not comfortable with time zone conversions, hit up this handy automatic converter to find out when you need to be in line.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

League of Legends has one. StarCraft II has one. Hearthstone has one. Smite has one. Seasonal ladders are a standard component of most modern competitive games, and lately I've been wondering why Dota 2 is absent from that list—particularly as Valve continue to tweak the MMR system.

I'm no fan of the way the MMR system has been implemented, nor do like the effect it's had, over time, on the Dota community. Valve's approach has always been inconsistent—or at least, they've not been transparent about their reasoning. Way back when, your matchmaking rating was hidden, the thought being that a visible rating would just lead players to obsess over it (that thought was correct). Later it was made visible and now the average MMR of each team is displayed at the start of the match, with the highest-rated players indicated in each case. Valve's slow U-turn is finally reaching its end.

I imagine we'll see the obvious problems that this has introduced shake themselves out over time—people will stop granting mid automatically to the highest-rated player, games will become less about ensuring that the enemy's best guy has a bad time—but, to me, it feels like Dota 2 has arrived at a strange middle ground. Competitive rating systems have two purposes: to ensure that players are matched with equally-skilled opponents, and to provide players with a goal—a way to gauge their improvement. Dota 2's system works reasonably well for the former, but it's terrible at the latter.

The current MMR system is visible enough to define how most people perceive their value as players, but the task of significantly altering your MMR is so monumental that it's out of reach of all but the most dedicated. Plenty of studies have been done that show that, eventually, your MMR will rise or fall appropriately—it is certainly possible to improve your rank as long as you're sufficiently dedicated and capable. That isn't in doubt, nor is the achievement of those players who have managed to significantly improve their position.

It certainly is an achievement—improving your rating by a notable amount (normally a matter of thousands of points) takes months and requires a huge investment of time. It is a marathon: grueling, unforgiving, and, a lot of the time, really unpleasant. The Dota community gets some of its best qualities from that process. It also gets a lot of its worst ones. Playing the MMR game feels a lot like wading through a mire: progress is incremental and your destination is always very far away. Also, the mire is full of dickheads. You look down; the mire is dickheads.

Personally, I see no reason why the current system couldn't work as the basis for a faster, more gratifying ladder system. In addition to improving my MMR slowly over time, I'd love the ability to play for a position within a monthly ladder, with tiers of performance—master, diamond, gold, and so on—that give you a sense of your general skill level at that time. In particular, I think being able to do this with a dedicated stack would fill in a gap between pub play and in-house leagues that Dota 2 currently desperately lacks. The best option available to beginner teams at the moment is JoinDota League, and that's both sporadic and a competitive tier above what most people will be looking for.

The great thing about time-limited ladders is that they provide a clear goal and they let you know whether you've succeeded or failed in a reasonable amount of time. That simply doesn't exist for Dota 2 at the moment: you're either in for the long haul or you're not in at all. While you could argue that Dota 2 is set aside from its competitors by this very fact—that it's Dota because there's no 'quick' option—I don't think ladders would make the game any less competitive. In fact, I think it'd make it more competitive. And—crucially—I think it'd make it friendlier.

The lie of MMR—and I've said this before—is the idea that it represents you all of the time. Your MMR is an average—that means that you will sometimes play better than your rating, and you will sometimes play worse than it. If your rating says '4000', you are not a 4K player every day, or even every game. An awful lot goes into a game of Dota, and you're only as good as you are capable of being in that moment.

The problem with the current system is that it suggests that MMR is forever: this is only true if you only play ranked, and you play it all the time. The advantage of a ladder is that it is located in time. I can say 'I was a rank 12 Hearthstone player in March last year' and that will remain true regardless of my current skill level. This encourages a bit of necessary perspective—each new ladder is proof of whether you've improved or slipped—and discourages you from obsessing over any particular rating. People still do, of course—but the system itself plays against it.

This can only be healthy for Dota 2. I'd love to see Valve make the switch—or explain, in a detailed way, what they're hoping to achieve with the current system.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

False alarm! Everybody continue about your normal business. This is not some official Half-Life 2 update; this is Half-Life 2: Update. The mod is a community-made attempt to give Half-Life 2 a graphical rub-down—enhancing its ageing visuals with some fancy technical trickery.

A comparison video gives you a look at what's been changed. Er, hopefully your eyesight is better than mine:

What, specifically, does the mod do? Here's the feature list:

  • Complete lighting overhaul including enhanced lighting, more detailed world shadows, and full High Dynamic Range Lighting (HDR).
  • New particle effects and improved fog.
  • Countless bug fixes, correcting both visual and game-based issues.
  • An extensive Community Commentary Mode featuring the voices of well-known Youtubers, including Caddicarus, Brutalmoose, Ricepirate, Balrog the Master, ProJared, and Ross Scott from Freeman's Mind .
  • Retains the iconic Half-Life 2 visual style and gameplay.

Half-Life 2: Update is due out tomorrow. It's free, but downloaders will obviously need to own a copy of Half-Life 2.

PC Gamer

This week's Triggernometry is all about the basics of flashbanging. CS:GO's blinding bomb is one of the fundamental tools of competitive play, but the techniques surrounding flashing can be pretty opaque. This video gives an overview of how flashes work and demonstrates two maneuvers, the pop flash and the fake flash.

For more advanced techniques, consult Swag

PC Gamer

Doom isn't the only aging shooter than's getting bloodier through modding. Now Half-Life has received a generous dose of gore and gibs with the Brutal Half-Life mod. Inspired by Brutal Doom, the adventures of Gordon Freeman have taken a turn for the gross with dismemberment, decapitations, gallons of blood, and some new moves.

Oh boy. I done made a mess of Barney.

Instead of just shooting monsters and soldiers, now you can chew off their individual limbs with bullets or pop their heads off with a shotgun blast. In fact, if you shoot off all their arms and legs, they'll flop to the ground and writhe around, still alive. You can smash their bodies into splattery glop, too. Those Barneys sure have a lot of blood in them. At least they used to.

Sorry, Vort, but the easiest way to get your collar off is by removing your head.

Not only do your opponents get covered in blood, you do too. After wading through the gooey spray that results from hyper-violent close-up combat, your weapons will become caked in gore. Speaking of weapons, there are a couple new ones. The M249 from Opposing Force has been added so you can really let some lead fly. And, Doom's own BFG can be collected, letting you put the green-glowing smackdown on crowds of enemies.

Not surprising that your own weapons get covered in blood.

There are some new animations, because as you'd expect, when you shoot someone's leg, arm, or head off they tend to move a bit differently. There are also added effects, like different types of explosions and smoke. The mod also comes with its own map, a sort of arena-style monster zoo for you to run around and fight whatever sort of enemies you like, accessible from the main menu.

And, the mod allows you to kick a dude, just like real scientists do. I always felt like Freeman should have been able to kick. He's gotta have strong legs after all the walking, sprinting, and standing in Limbo he's been doing.

Just open the door, Brainiac.

Brutal Half-Life can be found here, and it comes with its own installer which adds it to your Steam games list after a restart. It's only in beta, so I did get a couple crashes and once or twice maps didn't load properly. Otherwise, it's a bloody good time.

PC Gamer
Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

The International is less than six months away. That doesn't feel quite right—I'm pretty sure last year's tournament was two weeks ago, but whatever. It's coming in August, it's very likely to be back at KeyArena in Seattle, and a lot of fans, myself included, will be looking for the event to recapture a bit of the spirit that was lost in 2014.

That's not to say that TI4 was a bad event—not at all. It felt like a much bigger deal than the Benaroya Hall Internationals did. The scope of everything involved was larger, from the prize pool to the merchandise. But it was also a colder event, less intimate, which perhaps goes with the increase in size but does not necessarily need to. Having more fans in the building should make for a more energetic show, but TI4 moved in the opposite direction.

With that in mind, there are a few changes I'd like to see this year. The key thing, though, is that the Valve need to re-establish an understanding of what type of event The International is. Esports tournaments traditionally fall somewhere on a spectrum between 'fan convention' and 'sporting event', and Dota 2 has been no exception to that. In the main, however, it comes down closer to 'sporting event', with less emphasis on things like cosplay competitions and, over time, a reduced focus on the Steam Workshop or voice actor meet-and-greets.

TI4's biggest problems emerged when the 'convention' part of the equation started to intrude upon the 'sport' part. That's where I'd start.

Rethink the Secret Shop

If you needed any more evidence that cosmetic items have a strange, powerfully detrimental affect on esports, look at last year's International. The Secret Shop was a very slick, efficient operation with a two part ordering system designed to move people in with their money and back out with their stuff as fast as possible.

Even this, however, was not enough to prevent the line for the Secret Shop from occupying most of KeyArena's mezzanine for the full duration of every day. When huge chunks of your audience are standing in line for hats (actual hats, this time) rather than watching the sport they came to see, something has gone wrong. Unless you're trying to create a live-action version of the Year Beast event, in which case good job.

The issue is ultimately that the Secret Shop will always draw people away from the main event regardless of how efficient it becomes. The lure of hats is like a gas; it expands to fill the available space. The only answer, I think, is to turn the Secret Shop into a mail order service. You should order and pay for goods online and, in the case of International-specific items, be given a collection time at the event when you can go and pick up your stuff. If you miss it, have general 'free for all' periods at the end of the day when all of the games have been played.

The Secret Shop needs to become something that you jump up from your seat and do in 20 minutes between games, not something you commit an afternoon to. And that means giving Valve as much control as possible over how many people arrive and when. Ultimately, it'd be awesome if they looked into something like Disney's MagicBand. They have the resources for it, after all.

Every team plays on the main stage

I hope that this one is already in the bag: after all, this year's event will run for a full six days. The problem with 2014's structure was that it underestimated the value of pre-existing narratives to sport. They can be limiting, sometimes: teams, scenes and metagames change, and fans should be encouraged to change along with them and not expect the same 'el clasico' matches every year.

On the other hand, those events have a unifying effect that helps the community cohere. Even if it takes place in the opening stages of a long bracket, people will pack the stands to watch EG vs. Secret as they would have packed the stands for Na'Vi vs. Alliance last year. You need those moments, and you can't reliably get them if the majority of the tournament happens in a hotel a week before the live event.

Having a structure that guarantees at least one main stage game for every team vastly reduces the risk involved. Functionally, it insures the tournament against sudden changes—which is exactly what happened in 2014, when the competitive meta shifted a few times and left fan-favourite teams behind. I'd say that was less likely this year, but it's never off the table and the event needs to account for it.

Figure out how to make All Star matches work

They're such a no-brainer on paper, but it's weird how often just-for-fun 'All Star' matches fall flat. There's a lot to account for: players not being invested in the games, the audience feeling disconnected from whatever is going on in the booths, the games running too long, the games running too short, the showrunners having a particular gag in mind, and so on.

There are two I can think of has having worked well: The International 2013 and The Summit 2. In both cases it's because there's a strong link between the teams and the audience—either directly, in TI3's case, or implied by BTS' 'this could be happening in your house' deal.

That's harder to achieve in a larger arena, and it can be a real energy-sapper if the match enters a slow midgame—which is what happened last year. Nontheless, I don't think gimmicks are the solution—the solution is ensuring that the players are into it and that the audience get a sense of that. Part of that is down to the selection of players (which may well be down to a Compendium vote) and part of it is down to timing. If there isn't a time when it makes sense to have an All Star event without eating into players' schedules, it might not be worth doing.

All Star matches are, ultimately, part of the 'fan convention' part of the equation—and you can tell when it's being treated like an obligation rather than a fun diversion. Like The International as a whole, what I'd like to see in 2015 is an approach that identifies what makes these events special and makes a concerted effort to not only capture that spirit, but ultimately exceed it. The odd slightly-flat event is fine, but two in a row signifies a troubling loss of momentum.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Show us your rig

Each week on Show Us Your Rig, we feature PC gaming's best and brightest as they show us the systems they use to work and play.

This week's Show Us Your Rig is a special one as we feature our first—and hopefully not last—e-sports player. Jimmy "DeMoN" Ho is a professional Dota 2 player who's been playing DOTA and Dota 2 competitively since 2011. His rig and setup are slim but very powerful, sporting a GTX Titan Black. DeMoN was nice enough to take some time to tell us about he setup and how, predictably, he plays a lot of Dota 2. Classic Jimmy. 

What's in your PC?

  • PC - Falcon Northwest Tiki 2014
  • CPU - Intel Core i7-4770K processor
  • MOBO - Asus Z78I Deluxe motherboard
  • Ram - 16GB of RAM
  • GFX - EVGA GeForce GTX Titan Black GPU
  • 450W power supply
  • 8x DVD+-RW drive, along with two 1TB Corsair M550 SSDs, striped in RAID 0.
  • Windows 8.1, 64 bit
  • Keyboard - Logitech G710+
  • Mouse - Logitech G302 Daedalus Prime
  • Headset - HyperX Cloud ll
  • Webcam - Logitech C920

What's the most interesting/unique part of your setup?

The fact it's not your traditional large desktop and can fit just about anywhere measuring in a measly 14" x 4" x 14" being accommodating for smaller offices/rooms.

What's always within arm's reach on your desk?

My tower fan to keep me cool from the Southern California heat outside of Winter time.

My portable Dr Dre Speaker Pill to bump some music whenever I'm not gaming.

Water bottle and Red Bull to keep me hydrated and energized in case of those long hours of practice games, matches or streaming.

Phone, always got to have the phone by your side.

[Update: Jimmy sent us some extended answers to following two questions.]

What are you playing right now?

Right now I'm only playing Dota 2. We are preparing for a couple of major events such as Red Bull Battle Grounds which has a $75,000 base prize pool and I-League which has a $200,000+ prize pool. My team and I are are practicing at least 6+ hours a day and even more individually, playing in house or pub games.

What s your favorite game and why?

Before Dota came around, my love for gaming came from Pokemon Red and Blue on GameBoy which was almost 15+ years ago now haha. Now my favorite of all time is Dota 2, because of how the game is consistently changing whether it be buffs/nerfs to heroes or significant changes to the map alone. I've been playing this game for over 11 years now and it's still entertaining to play after all these years. 

PC Gamer

You may think Goat Simulator is a lighthearted game about goats doing un-goatlike things, but it's actually a vehicle for a much more sinister ploy. Soon goats will takeover the virtual world. Instead of Minecraft Creepers there will be Minecraft goats. Instead of Final Fantasy Chocobos there will be Final Fantasy goats. Instead of Kevin Spacey there will be a goat. 

With the help of Goat Simulator devs Coffee Stain Studios, goats may soon feature in Dota 2 in the form of a courier. The twist is that users have to vote the goat in. If you want to be complicit in the goat takeover, you can vote here

If you need convincing (and you do), then here's a video. Just think this through carefully before casting your vote, okay? 

PC Gamer

CS:GO s  ESL One Katowice last weekend drew more than a million viewers at its peak, a record viewership for any version of professional Counter-Strike. If you hold that number up against the number of people who gathered around League of Legends late last year (11 million concurrently) it looks slim, but it s a significant milestone for the FPS genre, which has struggled for decades to pull a large audience around its various competitive scenes.

Granted, the fact that spectators could earn  rare editions of CS:GO weapon skins by watching might ve had something to do with Katowice s popularity. I d rather credit that excitement to its matches, the majority of which were excellent through the four-day event. Coming into Saturday, the semifinals were stacked: Polish home team Virtus Pro was matched against Fnatic, who s considered the most-skilled team in the world. On the other side of the bracket, Dreamhack Winter 2014 champs (as Team LDLC) Team EnVyUs faced off with Swedish stalwarts NiP.

I recommend jumping into the Watch panel in CS:GO to watch some of the final matches in-client, but if you're short on time, here are some of my favorite clips from the event.

Katowice's early rounds included more than a few blowouts, but this video collects some of the best moments from early play

GeT_RiGhT pulls an insane 4K on de_dust2

Neo and Pasha make a memorable moving boost on Cobblestone

Device patiently lines up two NiP in banana on Inferno

Good breakdown of Pronax s strategy in some key rounds against NiP and VP

Friberg pulls a crazy double-kill on a single AK spray on the final map of the Katowice finals to keep NiP in it

Another great breakdown of Cloud9 s T-side pistol round execution against TSM on Nuke

MojoOnPC pulls in teams' in-game voice chat to share some of the funny moments from the competition, including team kills

...

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