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The Greatest Video Game Ever Might Never Be Made

Come on, Valve – stop messing about and give us Half-Life 3.

by Brad Barrett, Illustrations: Billy Mather
25 September 2014, 4:30pm

Half-Life protagonist Gordon Freeman, and secondary character Alyx Vance

"Half-Life 3 confirmed!" cry commenters across the internet, like really unfunny children. Mind you, Valve deserve it. The developer insisted on making one of the most beloved PC-honed shooters ever, you see, before announcing three shorter follow-up episodes. But they lied. We only got two, and they ended the last one on a cliff-hanger so unfair that George RR Martin would put down his pen in embarrassment if he saw it.

Unlike Game of Thrones fans, though, we've been waiting seven years for closure, and it isn't on the horizon yet. You earned this 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 forum fans – which somehow turned into a disappointment because it wasn't about Half-Life 2: Episode Three. Yep, the secret announcement of the long-asked-for sequel to one of the best games of 2007 was a disappointment.

Then you had the Surgeon Simulator 2013 furore, and tons of fake news, phoney ARGs and April Fools fuelling all this panning for information. As Tyler Malka, founder of the NeoGAF forum, memorably 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, before adding about the sequel itself: "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 in 2004. The second and last (expansion) episode for Half-Life 2 dropped in October of 2007. We'd be forgiven for thinking the worst.

Episode Three – or, more likely, Half-Life 3 – will be the most talked about game of all time, providing it arrives at all. Why? Frankly, this question will only come from those who didn't play the first two.

Giving us an unlikely hero in Gordon Freeman (an MIT graduate scientist, handy with a crowbar, not big on words), all action happening in real-time – i.e. no cut scenes – for greater immersion and a huge variety of enemies and environments, Half-Life altered player expectations dramatically. 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.

In 2004, after anticipation that has rarely been seen since, Half Life 2's protracted development – with its secrecy and sudden delay due to a highly publicised code leak before release – felt like an eternity. But the results were unfathomably brilliant. The game set the standard for polished AAA 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, with perhaps a nod to something called Halo (which is undeniably as influential, if not as clever).

Half-Life protagonist Gordon Freeman (Illustration 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 tantalising link between the Portal and Half-Life series centres around the mysterious Borealis, a ship possibly containing "local portal technology" that's gone missing in Portal 2 and appeared in Half-Life: Episode Two. The rivalry between Aperture Science and Black Mesa also filtered into the final 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, 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 (and last?) real, strong, interesting, female person of colour in videogames.

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, creating an all-too real dystopian world all helps make Half-Life 2 not just memorable, but a vital string in the DNA of gaming. I expect this string to run strongly through anything that carries the Half-Life name in the future. No pressure.

Three things are likely behind the huge delay and secrecy surrounding Half-Life 3. One, Valve taking its time to craft the greatest product they can; two, hiding the reality of its progress to discourage code-stealing, as happened to Half-Life 2; and three – and pleasenononopleaseno – the horrifying possibility that they just don't want to make it right now.

It took Stephen King 36 years to publish a sequel to The Shining, one of his most beloved books. So perhaps start to get anxious now? But, equally, I wouldn't be surprised if we get an In Rainbows situation, with the game suddenly appearing on Steam – Valve's iTunes-style interface, store and community for games – to pre-order two weeks ahead of release. They have the delivery system in place; Half-Life 2 was launched with Steam in 2004 and unplayable without it. It'd be poetic, especially as Steam has become a huge success and arguably the preferred method to buy PC games (Forbes estimated it enjoyed a 51 percent market share in digital game distribution in the US up until June of 2011).

So we're still here waiting. And while waiting, we've been playing – and will be able to play – all sorts of really great first-person games. BioShock (2007) and its sequels, including 2013's highly-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 choice.

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 co-operation to survive (or further) a zombie apocalypse. There are plenty of options for an FPS fan, and indeed fans of adventure and action-orientated gaming in general: the Tomb Raider reboot, Dishonoured, 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 vital seal of quality. Company co-founder Gabe Newell's last words on the subject, on the first Seven Day Cooldown podcast (via Rock, Paper, Shotgun), 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

For every successful game we play from Valve, there are iterations and ideas that just didn't work. No doubt Half-Life 3 / Episode Three has been through plenty of these experiments on the journey to completion. 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 Gabe told The Washington Post: "[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.'"

Whatever happens, we like imagining things we might like in a Half-Life sequel. Just ask CVG. Personally, I think their ideas sound rather old hat. But I'm not easy to please. I am the worst fan.

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 these directions, logically there's probably less being poured into whatever Half-Life 3 is. I don't see this as bad, really. We got those amazing games to keep us company. And, let's be honest with facts 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. Rumours 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, eventually. 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 with this.

Look, it's not fair when Valve employers 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, Valve. Your laughter at our expense only feeds hope – you wouldn't tease us cruelly without delivering a pay-off, 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 them occupied right now. But so do we. Almost all of us who are waiting are really busy, see. 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 their time, and perhaps focus on selling their 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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Half Life 3
Gordon Freeman
Billy Mather
Brad Barrett