Half-Life is one of the most respected franchise companies in the world. It has established Valve not only as a leading developer, but also player expectations regarding first-person storytelling, building the world, and hostile A.I. Half-Life 2 and its episodic successors continued to advance the FPS genre until the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007. After the cliffhanger end of episode 2, fans couldn’t wait to see Gordon Freeman’s culmination epic battle against the totalitarian, multi-dimensional aliens known as the Combine.
You are still waiting. (Type of.)
Since Valve’s focus has shifted to the maintenance of its digital steam store and the online game as a Dota 2 service, the Half-Life brand seems to have been abandoned by its makers. Many fans wonder if we’ll ever see a half-life game again. Others consider it time to take matters into their own hands. If Valve won’t do another half-life, his fans will.
INSIDE PROJECT BOREALIS
INSIDE PROJECT BOREALIS
On August 25, 2017, Half-Life writer and former Valve associate Marc Laidlaw wrote a blog post titled Epistle 3. The post described the exploits of some scientists looking for a mysterious ship to the Arctic had traveled in and out of reality. Laidlaw did not use the words “Half-Life”, “Gordon Freeman” or “Combine” in his contribution, but the conclusion was clear: this was the outline for the missing episode in the “Half-Life” series.
“It was kind of cryptic, but everyone quickly realized that it was their interpretation of what Half-Life: Episode Three should be,” said Sam Walton, PR manager for the Borealis project. “The Half-Life community saw this as a signal that Half-Life 3 is unlikely to take place. If the lead author wanted to publish something like this, the game might never come out. We always thought: “Maybe someone is working on it somewhere behind the scenes.” But many people saw this post and said, “Well, that’s probably how it is.”
But disappointment turned into a bold idea: now that fans had a draft for the next half-life, they might not have to wait for Valve to finish working on the game. You could just do it yourself. Dozens of Half-Life fans gathered around the subtitle r / DreamsofHalfLife3, where they talked about making the next Half-Life themselves. The team was named Project Borealis (an allusion to an Aperture Science research ship featured in Half-Life 2: Episode Two), and over the past two years, this original group of fans has grown to over 80 designers – roughly the same number the developer listed in the credits of Half-Life 2. This diverse team has a variety of interests and specialties and is represented in the United States, Great Britain, Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia and South America.
“We have team members who have worked at Triple-A game development studios, including Blizzard, Ubisoft, and id Software,” said Walton. “Others have already contributed to community projects like Black Mesa or other half-life mods. And we have a lot of team members who are currently at university or working for non-game developer organizations. “
Project Borealis’s sloppy ad hoc development team is made up of part-time workers and hobbyists, but it’s also run a bit like a commercial game studio. Team members have official job titles, report to team leaders, commit to deadlines and conduct group meetings. The Borealis project even lists job vacancies on its website and interviews newbies before joining the team.
Over the past two years, this weekend warrior collective has designed an impressive-looking marksman. Laidlaw’s blog post talked a lot about the history of Half-Life, but the gameplay was vague, which gives Project Borealis a fairly long leash to experiment with. The team would like to expand the framework a little and add new sensibilities to the gameplay, e.g. For example, destructible environments, snow vehicles and new enemies like frozen headcrab zombies. At the same time, Project Borealis strives to develop a game that stays true to what the series has previously done.
“We want this to feel natural,” says Walton. “We didn’t want to aim or hide the mechanics anymore so that it would be a completely different game. But more than 10 years have passed since episode two. So we’re experimenting with things that are a natural next step. We’ve added a swirl mode to the gravity cannon that can create this type of tornado with hundreds of physics objects. That kind of thing. “
The new tricks in Project Borealis’s “Half-Life” project are only possible because the team made the controversial decision to deviate from Valve’s longstanding source engine. Surprisingly, the team continues to develop the Unreal Engine.
“When we started the project, everyone assumed we would be using the source engine,” says Walton. “But the programming team said early on:” You know, I don’t think that’s a good idea. The source engine is out of date and has not been updated for at least five years. It’s not going to be fun to work with. “Some members of the half-life community were reluctant to use Unreal Engine. Example: “Will it feel like half-life?” People have played this game so many times that they know when something feels wrong. When we chose Unreal, there was another group that said, “Well, we’re doing this with Source!”
INSIDE BOREAL ALYPH
INSIDE BOREAL ALYPH
During the day, David Mason studies digital animation at the University of Alabama. At night, he helps with programming, sound design, texturing and modeling within the Keep Away From Fire developer community. Mason has been part of the half-life modding community since he was in middle school. When he got the opportunity to advance Half-Life 3 in Source as development manager for Keep Away From Fire, he jumped at the chance.
Keep Away From Fire’s Half-Life project is working title Boreal Alyph. Boreal is an obscure word for north and Alyph is a falsification of the Yiddish word for time. “Northern Time” is again a reference to Marc Laidlaw’s blog post and his history in the Arctic. Unlike Project Borealis, however, the Boreal Alyph team does not see Laidlaw’s outline as a gospel.
“(Laidlaw’s blog post) is just a guideline, you know, a rough draft of our game,” Mason says. “We are in a process of constant revision with this project. I am the first to admit our limitations. We have no work experience. Many of us have never delivered a complete product.
Boreal Alyph’s version of Half-Life Episode 3 takes Gordan Freeman and Alyx Vance to a weather station on a remote island somewhere in Northern Russia, but this is just the beginning of a much larger journey, and players will eventually get to research stations, coal, mines, and travel Mining settlements around the world. The Boreal Alyph team has spent a lot of time developing their own characters, locations, and story arc for this version of Half-Life 3.
The Boreal Alyph team contests the idea that its project resulted from Project Borealis’ decision to use Unreal. One thing is certain, however: The Boreal Alyph team is determined to use Valve’s source engine. In fact, the Boreal Alyph team has already signed a contract with Valve to license the source engine for non-commercial use. This means that the team can edit the engine code, but cannot sell the end product. These types of license agreements are rare, so many members of the Boreal Alyph community believe that Valve Boreal Alyph has given his blessing. With the source engine, Boreal Alyph has felt like a half-life game from day one. Of course, this does not mean that the development went very smoothly.
“Source is definitely not as user-friendly or as well documented as something modern like Unreal or Unity,” Mason says. “It makes us a lot of trouble sometimes. For example, graphically, it is difficult to perform many modern shading techniques because Source Engine is on DirectX 9, which is very old at the time. It’s a constant struggle over how we can modernize the graphics so that we don’t need 20 years or have to pull all our hair off. “
The source engine is getting on in years, but the Boreal Alyph team has used it wisely. A small group of programmers has already rewritten the functionality of the system. Combined soldiers now flank the player, which was not the case in the original games. To date, the team has spent a lot of time on gunplay and hostile design. A new creature is a Medic variant that shoots a support drone that flies around the area and heals other enemy soldiers. The Boreal Alyph team is also working on a heavy Combine unit, which has a huge health pool and carries a chain gun.
“We’re definitely trying to emulate the style of Half-Life 2,” Mason says. “We are planning our own vehicle department and the start of the game should look something like Ravenholm – the horror section of Half-Life 2. We kind of recreated it, but in a similar style to The Thing or Metro 2033. You are in this frozen wasteland and you’re stranded and everything turns to hell. “
Slowly and steadily towards the finish line
Slowly and steadily towards the finish line
Both Project Borealis and Boreal Alyph began with a noble desire to offer fans like themselves the experience they have been craving for over a decade. These collectives learned that developing games is much more difficult than it looks. In a way, both groups faced challenges that commercial game studios don’t have to worry about.
“We have this distributed, fully voluntary group of people and we have to somehow bring them together so that we can actually complete this game,” says Walton. “I think that’s definitely the biggest challenge for us. We have people who know Half-Life inside out and Unreal Engine inside out. The technical side of things is pretty good, but it’s probably the biggest challenge to figure out the organizational aspect and keep things together. “
“It is a unique beast that does business over the Internet when people are spread across every time zone from Pacific Time to Moscow,” Mason says. “People have work and school and they’re not physically in the same place. It just doesn’t work like a traditional physical studio environment where people meet every day. And they get paid! It’s a big motivator. Man development just has to be much easier and slower. “
Ultimately, Project Borealis and Boreal Alyph rely on their teams to work on these projects in their spare time. When living conditions change, these desires sometimes change. Engagement is a big problem for both communities. Members of Keep Away From Fire even experienced a phenomenon they called the “Boreal Alyph Curse” because it appears that the most committed members of the team continue to be put in paid positions by commercial game development studios, no longer at a half -Life fan project work.
Given all the factors that go into the development of these community-run projects, it’s a miracle that both Project Borealis and Boreal Alyph are as advanced as they have been. Both teams have developed robust, playable builds that are reminiscent of professional game projects. Still, there are a number of invincible challenges to go to the finish line, and neither group is ready to commit to a release date. At the moment, both groups of young designers are slowly trying to realize their dream game. A legion of Half-Life fans is eagerly awaiting the release of the next Half-Life game, and these fan projects could be their greatest hope.
Who still makes Half-Life 3?
This article originally appeared in Issue 318 of Game Informer Magazine.