Half-Life's Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance.
“Half-Life 3 confirmed!” is one of those memes some internet people never get tired of: the joke is, you see, that Half-Life 3, perhaps the most anticipated video game of all time, is never going to come out. Mind you, Valve deserve japes like that. The famed game developer insisted on making one of the most beloved first-person shooters ever before announcing that they would come out with shorter follow-up episodes. But we only got two, and the last installment ended on a cliffhanger so unfair that George RR Martin would put down his pen in embarrassment if he saw it.
Unlike Game of Thrones fans, though, Half-Life fans have been waiting seven years for closure, and it isn’t on the horizon yet. You earned our devotion, Valve, and now you have to deal with the repercussions.
Some want a crusade. However, on the calmer end of the scale, you had the 2010 Portal 2 ARG—a kind of whodunnit code-breaking exercise solved by very smart Valve fans—which somehow turned into a disappointment because it wasn't about Half-Life 2: Episode 3. (That's what the dreamed-of next installment of the franchise is called. Sorry, it's confusing.)
Then you had the Surgeon Simulator 2013 furor, and tons of fake news, phoney ARGs and April Fools pranks fueling all these searches for information. As Tyler Malka, founder of the NeoGAF forum, said in a Guardian feature about this very subject, “Half-Life 3's more internet meme than product.” And just like any meme, it's basically run its course.
So why do we still care? It's not like it's GTA or Zelda, right? Agreed. It’s a lot more important than both of those.
Zero Punctuation reviews Half-Life
“Nothing on PC has quite managed to repeat the fine melody with which Half-Life was orchestrated,” Edge enthused about the seminal original in its Half-Life 2 review from 2004. Of the sequel, it said, “This is possibly the most exquisitely crafted action game of all time. Half-Life 2 is a first-person shooter. But in action, storytelling, technical achievement, atmosphere, and intensity it has far outdone its peers. Valve just hit the top note no other PC game developer could reach.”
It got one of the magazine's rarely-awarded 10 out of 10s. Case closed.
Sure, we may get a Zelda or two per generation, and GTA sequels seem to be becoming more frequent, but Half-Life came out in 1998 and the sequel dropped in 2004. The second and last (expansion) episode for Half-Life 2 dropped in October 2007. We’d be forgiven for thinking the worst, that the franchise is grinding to an end.
Half-Life 3 will probably be the most talked about game of all time if it ever arrives. If you have to ask why, you probably didn't play the first two.
The first game in the series gave us an unlikely hero in Gordon Freeman (an MIT graduate scientist who's handy with a crowbar and not big on words), let all the action play out in real time—i.e., no cut scenes—in order to better immerse players, and provided a huge variety of enemies and environments. Half-Life altered expectations of what a game could be dramatically, and everyone naturally rushed to catch up. They failed. Even when notables like Doom 3, Far Cry and F.E.A.R. appeared almost six years later, rival developers had left it far too long, because Valve had been busy.
Half Life 2’s protracted development—with its secrecy and sudden delay due to a highly publicized code leak before release—felt like an eternity. But the results were unfathomably brilliant. The game set the standard for polished single-player first-person shooter gameplay both at the time and, arguably, for the next decade. Its level design, variety of play styles, and subtle storytelling is yet to be surpassed, with the closest effort being Valve’s own Portal 2 or perhaps Halo (which is undeniably as influential, if not as clever).
Gordon Freeman. Illustrations by Billy Mather
Most prominent in this indelible sequel is the irresistible hook of an interwoven, textural world that—not content with referencing its predecessor constantly—also seems to branch into Valve’s other games. The tantalizing link between the Portal and Half-Life universes centers around the mysterious Borealis, a ship possibly containing “local portal technology” that’s gone missing in Portal 2 and appeared in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. The rivalry between Aperture Science and Black Mesa also made an appearance in the last episode.
This kind of mythology crossover shit is just what us geeks lap up. We may be jumping the gun, though.
“Yeah, it’s nice to imply this science arms race between Black Mesa and Aperture,” said Portal 2 writer Jay Pinkerton to Rock, Paper, Shotgun. “Tonally they’re very different. I think it works better. A wink-nudge link, rather than tearing down the wall and seeing how these two universes collide.”
But the world was full of incredible detail before Portal was even conceived. The fascist Combine cops of Half-Life 2 were (maybe?) bullying humans who were getting a better deal from their new alien overlords than the broken populace around you. Remember having to pick up that can? The young couple cuddled up on the sofa wanting the war to be over? That first glimpse of the towering, gleaming Citadel, which was almost always central in your vision for a reason: It was your goal line. The return of the crowbar and its accompanying musical cue stirred nostalgia. Freeman’s ally Alyx Vance is almost definitely the first real, strong, interesting, female person of color in video games.
CGR Undertow Revisits Half-Life 2
If you saw significance in something anywhere in the game, it was put there deliberately, maybe as a guide, a clue, or just to satisfy our love of discovery. This richness of thought, of detail, created an all-too real dystopian world that helps make Half-Life 2 not just memorable, but a vital strand in the DNA of gaming. I expect this strand to run strongly through anything that carries the Half-Life name in the future. No pressure.
There are three reasons for the delay and secrecy surrounding Half-Life 3. One, Valve may simple be taking its time to craft the greatest product they can; two, it might be hiding its progress to discourage code stealing; and three—and pleasenononopleaseno—it might just not want to make it right now.
Nothing would surprise me at this point. The game might suddenly appearing on Steam – Valve’s iTunes-style interface that serves as a store and community for gamers—for pre-order two weeks ahead of release. But in the meantime, we’re still here waiting. And while we're waiting, we’re playing all sorts of really great first-person games. BioShock (2007) and its sequels, including 2013's lauded BioShock Infinite, have taken the reins as far as storytelling in a first-person perspective goes, adding RPG-like upgrades for your character and the intrigue of moral choices.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) brought multiplayer FPS-ing to mainstream audiences in the biggest way possible, breaking all sorts of entertainment sales records. Far Cry 3 moved the FPS into open world territory. Valve’s own Left 4 Dead freshened up multiplayer FPS with a focus on cooperation. There are plenty of options for an FPS fan, and indeed fans of adventure and action-orientated gaming in general: the Tomb Raider reboot, Dishonored, Skyrim. And upcoming: No Man’s Sky, Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within, Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture; and let’s stop there. What can a new Half-Life offer that these can't?
Well, if it wasn’t obvious already, there’s Valve’s seal of quality. Company co-founder Gabe Newell’s last words on the subject, on the first Seven Day Cooldown podcast, were something like this: “If we talk about things too far in advance we end up changing our minds when developing things… the twists and turns we’re going through will drive people more crazy than just being silent about it.” Translation: “Give us time to sort through our crazy ideas, and we’ll deliver the best thing we possibly can. Be patient. Christ, you’re all awful.”
A trailer for Half-Life 2
These things, they take time. And if you don’t believe Valve fail at things, they beg to disagree with you.
Perhaps it’s worth considering, amid endless Call of Duty and Battlefield sequels, if we really have room for any more FPS games? Is it time for Valve to redefine their Half-Life series? Having perfected the FPP (first person puzzler, no?) with Portal, and co-op online FPS-ing with Left 4 Dead 2 and Team Fortress 2, they’ve got all the skill sets and ideas covered in other games. They’ve shifted their focus to multiplayer titles of late, as Newell told the Washington Post this year: “[We] could have been really successful just doing Half-Life sequels, but we collectively said, ‘Let’s try to make multiplayer games, even though there’s never been a commercially successful multiplayer game.'”
I admit, it is a little galling that in this seven-year gap Valve has been able to make Left 4 Dead and its sequel, plus numerous updates; continually fine-tune Team Fortress 2; and craft the amazing Portal 2. Oh, and don't forget the ridiculously successful multiplayer online battle RPG game DOTA 2. With all this creativity flowing in all these directions, logically there’s probably less being poured into whatever Half-Life 3 is. I don’t see this as being bad, really. We got those amazing games to keep us company. And, let’s be honest here: They’re busy.
Valve’s current large-scale project is the recently announced Steam Machines—a series of open, Linux-driven, living room PC/consoles in a box—and their Steam OS. Rumors of Left 4 Dead 3 abound. Oh, and there’s the development of Source 2, the game engine that will no doubt power Half-Life 3. In fact, it may well have been stealth-rolled out into DOTA 2, though Valve has made no confirmation of this.
Gabe himself hinted at the possibility that the official launch of Source 2 may come with a particular game for some 4chan board members who visited him for his birthday: “We've been working on Valve’s new engine stuff for a while, we’re probably just waiting for a game to roll it out with.”
Dammit, he knows what he’s doing.
Look, it’s not fair when Valve employees take the piss out of us for wanting this all so damn badly. We've been told Ricochet 2 is being worked on and that G-Man is in fact Gordon Freeman from the future and Alyx Vance's great-grandfather. From actual Valve people. Funny, guys. But the joke’s on you. Your laughter at our expense only feeds hope—you wouldn’t tease us cruelly without planning to deliver a payoff, no matter how long it takes.
What form this takes is all speculation, because that’s all we have, bar some leaked concept art circa 2008. Allegedly more up-to-date concept art exists, as confirmed back in May by Counter-Strike magician Minh Lee, even if he seems a little wary of saying so. Half-Life 3 confirmed!
Basically, Valve has plenty to keep it occupied right now. But so do we. Almost all of us who are waiting are really busy. We have day jobs. We have relationships. Kids. Lives of our own. Hell, we have other games to play. We’re better off letting Valve take its time, and perhaps focus on selling its brand-new hardware, waiting until that's selling steadily before they announce the game. Probably exclusively for Steam OS and Steam Machines. Then they’ve really got us.
Those scheming bastards.
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