Yahtzee and Gordon walk into a bar...
Sorry to fumble open an old wound like a frustrated teenage cinemagoer on a fourth date, but what do we think actually happened to Half-Life 3? Was it just shunted down a priority list because Team Fortress 2 needed some more fucking hats? Or, knowing Valve, did they almost finish it two or three times, only to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch 'cos they weren't 100% satisfied with the color of the tomato sauce bottles in the 50's diner level? (That is to say, knowing Valve from back when they were game developers and didn't just spend all day sitting atop their dragon's hoard of plunder, gently rubbing their scaly bell-ends with an emery board.)
With the epic and scintillating story of Half-Life that we all spent fifteen years getting invested in now, it seems, resigned to end on an unresolved cliffhanger, fans of Half-Life may now turn to drastic means for the sake of some kind of closure: fan fiction, cosplay, allowing Valve to essentially monopolize digital distribution of PC games. Some of them might even do something as drastic and self-destructive as pay actual money for Hunt Down The Freeman! But please, if you're even considering it, remember that there is always help out there and, failing that, morphine tablets.
The staggering thing about Hunt Down The Freeman is not that it exists; if we had to stop the presses every time someone made a shitty fan game, the presses wouldn't be running long enough to print a fucking Bazooka Joe comic. The staggering thing is that this is a fan game embellishing Valve's story, using Valve's intellectual property, being sold for actual money on Valve's own distribution network, and therefore, carries an unspoken stamp of endorsement, despite being truly, madly, ovarian cyst-ingly bad on every imaginable level, in ways that only bad fan games can be: the unique juxtaposition of the professional art assets and mechanics of the original game, taken apart and reassembled in the clumsiest way possible, like an art gallery storage room after an earthquake.
It's also fairly obviously nicked a lot of its new content, weapons, and level architecture from asset stores and other mods as, again, some of it looked competently made, but has all been dropped into the game with the care and precision with which turds are placed at the bottom of a budgie cage, the kind of thing where you walk into an overlarge room and there's just twelve zombies arranged in a neat row because I guess the people in this room were doing the fucking hokey cokey when the aliens invaded.
Hunt Down The Freeman is also weirdly plot-heavy, interrupting its shitty levels regularly for elaborate Source Filmmaker cutscenes, starring multiple intense soldier dudes who all look like they were created at the Mass Effect character customization screen with about 90% of the options removed and sound like they had that usual mod problem where every character has different audio quality because the actors were recording with their personal headset mics they more commonly use to swear at twelve-year-olds in Counter-Strike. As for the actual story, you are a soldier bloke called Mitchell, who was one of the soldier blokes sent into Black Mesa in the original Half-Life to kill Gordon Freeman and all his scientist pals. But instead, Gordon Freeman kills all our pals and duffs us up with a crowbar, whereupon we swear revenge on his orange ass.
See, it's not just that the plot only makes sense if you know the plot of Half-Life and Half-Life 2; it's also that it only makes sense if you assume the main character also knows the plot of Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Why else would he solemnly swear epic revenge upon someone who, to him, should just be one random pimply scientist committing the sin of not wanting to be killed? In truth, Gordon Freeman is rather conspicuously absent from a game with his name and, indeed, lovely marketable face all over its Steam store page; there's an in-game screenshot on there showing his face that's a flat-out stinking lie. Mitchell gets embroiled in the Seven-Hour War against the Combine, bridging the plot of Half-Life 1 and 2, just in case it didn't sound unmitigatedly galling enough yet, and what follows is a showcase of some of the worst level design ever commercially sold. And at that, I include every shitty asset flip Steam game consisting of one flat square of grass texture with some trees dotted around it, because in this case, someone was actually trying.
Environments are smashed randomly together, so half the ways to go are empty dead ends and nothing indicates the actual way forward; I spent ten minutes in a bunker with some infinitely-respawning friendly NPCs fighting off waves of infinitely-respawning alien soldiers that all resemble a three-year-old's drawing of Mysterio from Spider-Man before I realized I was supposed to get bored, wander off behind enemy lines, and stumble into a nearby level transition. The enemy placement seems to be inspired by the placement of crumbs on my kitchen counter after I've made my special breaded chicken with little consideration for the size of the environment, so after a while, I just ran past everyone like I was having severe gastric problems at a wedding reception.
There are also hazards that can only be bypassed with abilities and items the game forgot to fucking tell you that you have; you only find out they added a "prone" ability - because what Half-Life really needs is to be more like a fucking Call of Duty game, he said with sarcasm leaking from the corners of his mouth like hastily-stolen cake - when you can't get past a hole too small to enter and look up a walkthrough. You also need to use a "mantling" ability that only bloody works if you've holstered your bloody guns; unfortunately, the game forgot to bind a key to "holster guns", and even after I bloody did, it didn't bloody work, so I had to bloody noclip through the problem. And once the precedent is set, it's very tempting to keep noclip-ing. "Hmm, I could spend twenty minutes searching for the way out of this pitch-black cave that I can't navigate because the game only gave me one flare and apparently I used it in the wrong place, or I could just open the console, Kitty Pryde my way out, and have enough time to go out and steal some more cake!"
Still, the plot chugs happily along through its multiple breaking bugs and design fuck-ups - Mitchell ends up joining forces with the Combine to take down Freeman, revenge for being self-defense bitch-slapped now taking precedence over revenge for, you know, enslaving the human race! - and the story eventually nonsenses its way to thrillingly and climactically ripping off a line from The Dark Knight Rises. Twice. But Hunt Down The Freeman is about what to expect from any game where half the developers are credited by their forum handles alone. The only reason I wanted to talk about it is 'cos of the depressing indictment of modern gaming it creates; not by itself, but by Valve's apparent indifference to this waterfall of piss trickling down either side of its legacy's nose.
Twenty years ago, Half-Life was a focal point in gaming's ongoing development as an artistic narrative medium; the next few years saw a slew of titles that combined AAA game design with genuine emotional story. But what happened between then and now?! Why are the games routinely rewarded with AAA status and income exclusively loot box-infested live service bullshit, games designed not to inspire or stimulate our emotions, but to numb them and hypnotize us into lab rats, mindlessly pawing the button that makes treats come out, while the games created with love and artistic integrity drown beneath waves of bottom-feeders like Hunt Down The Freeman, that tear chunks of rotten flesh from the corpses of Valve's children as Valve itself, once-habitual founders of new ages of narrative gaming, merely waves them on, barely glancing up from their tax paperwork?! What happened to you?! What happened to us?! To the people we were supposed to become?! ...I don't know, but it's probably safe to blame John Romero.
- Free falling: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I wouldn't think it'd be hard just to hire someone to play two minutes of every new Steam game and bin all the obvious garbage but what do I know
- Still at least that's one fifth of this year's Bottom Five sorted
Extra: Differently Morphous
My latest book, Differently Morphous, is out now on audible.com as an Audible Original, meaning audiobook first with print version further down the line, so get those ears unstuffed. It's a contemporary paranormal fantasy about the difficulties of adapting to modern life when you're a formless Lovecraftian horror from beyond the veil of time and space.