A Goddess Reborn

By Alec Meer on October 2nd, 2007 at 10:32 pm.

You may have noticed we’ve been frothing uncontrollably about Valve games for the last couple of weeks (actually, we’re in complete control of our froth, thank you very much. What’s that? Yes, I know there’s drool on my chin. I just like the look, alright?). You may also have noticed that there’s one component of The Orange Box that we haven’t yet talked about much (we shall soon, don’t worry). For a lot of people, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the vanguard of Valve’s latest box of delights. To help them cope with the sweating and shivering and crying caused by having to wait another eight agonising days yet for more singleplayer Half-Life action, I can confidently prescribe Minerva: Metastasis.

If you’re already familiar with it, then all you need to know is that the third (well, third and fourth, sorta) part’s out, it’s comfortably the best yet, and you should go play it right away. If you’ve never heard of it, then pray follow me into my word parlour.

Much like the game of which it is a mod, Metastasis is an episodic singleplayer game, set in the Half-Life 2 universe and approximate timeline, and even uses Gordon Freeman’s familiar arsenal (though sensibly removes the quasi-albatross that is the Gravity Gun) and rogue’s gallery. If you want more Half-Life 2 right now, this is probably the best way to get your fix. If you don’t think you can stomach any more on-rails Combine-shooting, don’t run off yet. This does things differently.

Metastasis is an intruiging endeavour, and one that’s in some ways more ingenious than Valve’s own game, for two reasons. The first is level design. Anyone who’s played Half-Life 2 will have seethed a few dozen times at the jarring loading points, the ribbon structure of its levels meaning the game has to go fetch more data after every few minutes of forward motion. Metastasis takes an onionskin approach – rather than simply travelling along, you go up, down, in, out, around, area piled over area in careful layers. It’s about economy, about trying to make every possible scrap of space inside that level chunk something that the player can visit. When you do hit a loading point – there are just a handful across Metastasis’ four chapters – it’s oddly startling, simply because you haven’t seen one for so long by that point.


Secondly, there’s its plot – or at least its narrator, because what plot there is dervies solely from what meagre morsels of information she chooses to share with you. The unseen, unheard Minerva (she communicates only in text) is a sneering hybrid of SHODAN and the G-Man – the icy conceit of the former, the quiet omnipotence of the latter.

Who/what is she? We don’t know, yet. She speaks in riddles and quotations, with hints of something inhuman behind it. I could make a few guesses as to what she is, but I’d probably be wrong. What’s far more important is that you do what she tells you, because she’s the only entity in Metastasis who isn’t overtly trying to kill you and because, well, she’s kind of fun. After so many videogames with forgettable what-you-see-is-what-you-get guiding voices (yes, there’s a game I’m deliberately not mentioning here for fear of spoiler-anger, before you start with your pesky ‘What about…”), one that repeatedly tells you you’re a useless cretin is a breath of fresh, if bitter and sarcastic, air.

Who are you? Only Minerva knows. Why have you been dumped on an island full of Combine? Only Minerva knows. Where does that bloody great hole in the ground go? Only Minerva knows.

I wrote a semi-review of the first two chapters of Metastasis (which is itself just the first arc of a much longer sequence, apparently) for Eurogamer a while back, and, while I was very impressed, I had a few complaints, especially with the excessive Find The Door challenges in the second episode. Politely thanking me for the constructive criticism, the one-man-band behind Minerva, Adam Foster, suggested I’d be happier with the upcoming third instalment, with which Valve themselves had lent a hand.

He wasn’t wrong. It was released yesterday (and actually turned out to be two chapters in one release), and I eagerly played through as soon as I could. It’s hugely superior to the first two episodes, to the point where it often feels as though it was picked straight from the Valve tree rather than being a mod. Especially a mod by just one guy (albeit with some impressive third-party musical assistance). There are smart puzzles. There is exhilarating action. There is high tension. There is character development. There are revelations, of a sort.

It’s really slick. To such an extent, in fact, that I feel a bit bad about the swipes I took at the earlier chapters, as it’s entirely evident from this that Foster knows exactly what he’s doing with Minerva now. I’d go into more details, but I don’t want to spoil some of the setpiece moments for you. Yeah, I could also list a few faults, but that would be pretty futile for a post that’s trying to convince you to go play it.

Downloady here (or here if you’re a clever Bittorrent-type). Its slim 150Mb includes all four chapters, and several happy hours (well, you may struggle with bits of the second chapter, but honestly, stay with it) of zero-cost entertainment. You will need to have bought and installed Half-Life 2: Episode 1 already, however, as its fancy-pants HDR lighting and a few graphical elements not present in HL2 vanilla are smartly incorporated into Metastasis.

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46 Comments »

  1. Seniath says:

    I’ve been waiting, what, a year? for this? I can’t even remember. But yes, been waiting a long time, and now it’s finally released and I can’t play it. Damned PSU!

    I guess I can last a day….

  2. Tom says:

    minerva is absolutely brilliant.
    there’s one scene in there so freakin good that i simply never thought I’d see in an amateur production, it’s that pro
    so far i can think of only one fault, and that’s simply a particular lighting effect that i thought would have completed a certain scene was missing.

    amateur shmamateur – this guy’s amazing!

  3. Sören Höglund says:

    Finally! Though I think I’ll wait to play the third and fourth chapter until my new fancy-pants PC arrives, so I can enjoy it in glorious hi-res.

  4. Schmidt says:

    A sneering hybrid of SHODAN and the G-Man? There’s already a word for that: Durandal.

  5. Thelps says:

    Many thanks for drawing my attention this way. Been lacking some more meat for me to sink my teeth into on my favourite engine platform. I just miss the HL2 physics , to be honest. Few barrels roll as roundly as HL2s.

  6. Cargo Cult says:

    Durandal, you say?

    Well, if you want a version of the Minerva character with some slightly more overt references to Marathon, there’s always my own Someplace Else for the original Half-Life. Technically, MINERVA is an indirect sequel, and any architectural similarities are more than deliberate… ;-)

    Also, if you really want to indulge in a spot of impromptu necrophilia with my maps, there’s Fractured for Doom 2. No devastating off-screen females sending messages in this one, alas.

    Bonus points if you find my aborted Quake episode!

  7. Schmidt says:

    It’s interesting that in the nightly battle between Halo 3 and Team Fortress 2 for my time, Minerva, a game with connections (granted, oblique connections) to both will win out.

  8. Mercer says:

    This man tells the truth. Go get MINERVA…now, no wasted time…Adam is a genius.

    You know come to think of it, there were a lot of architectural similarities, as you put them Adam, between Someplace Else and MINERVA…neat…

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    This really is a great mod. More of this sort of thing, please.

  10. Lars Vetle says:

    This mod is just freaking AMAZING! I have never played a so well mod ever before in any game! 11/10 stars.

  11. Monkfish says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed playing this yesterday.

    The sense of pacing and progression are the strongest I’ve seen for a long time. The fact that it’s in a free mod makes it all the more astounding.

    Lots of great setpieces, such as the jaw-dropping moment pictured above (second picture down – although, when I look at it now, it has a slight hint of Goatse about it. I think I need a holiday away from the Internet…).

    MINERVA is deserved of all the attention it can (and will) get – I see this as Half-Life 2′s equivalent of Half-Life’s They Hunger series in terms of status.

    Anyway, I’d like to say a huge thankyou to Adam Foster for the MINERVA series – you, sir, are destined for greatness!

  12. Crispy says:

    I agree, it equals ‘They Hunger’ in status, but it betters it in terms of game and level design.

    Forget Bioshock, Minerva’s got Adam by the boatload, and it’s free!

    (Don’t forget Bioshock)

  13. anamnesis says:

    Echoing all sentiments here. Truly a spectacle and something to be played by anyone who likes the HL2 story. Mr. Foster has both technical prowess and creative talent in abundance, and Valve could learn more than a few things from this fanfic in terms of storytelling technique and design approach. Maybe Valve should just hire Adam Foster and pay him lots of money. Hell, they hired Kim Swift and Jeep Barnett to do Portal and they didn’t even have any HL2 design experience prior to joining Valve.

    Whaddaya say, Adam? Gabe oughta make you an offer.

  14. Tom says:

    the text based comms gave the story an edge over HL2′s. it’s far more intelligent stuff, coming along in the wake of Bioshock but using far wider themes of humanity and what it is to be sentient, being a mod allows for this kind of stuff. something really special.

  15. drunkymonkey says:

    I’m going to play this tomorrow. It’s my favourite mod for Half Life 2 (shocking, what with Garry’s Mod and Insurgency), so I’ve been dying, absolutely dying, to play the new chapters.

  16. drunkymonkey says:

    I just finished it (chapters 3 and 4), and Jesus Christ, I already had high standards after the first two, but that was really, really excellent. The music, the level design, the rampant personality of Minerva when she speaks to you, and the ending…they all came together to create the best mod I’ve ever played.

    It was worth, the wait, and honestly one of the most heart-pounding moments that I’ve had in my gaming life.

    Well done, Foster!

  17. Andrew says:

    Just finished this. I’d played the first two parts already, but the third and fourth chapters were on another level altogether. The hectic, weaponless ‘Depth Charge’ was amazing, and the fourth chapter, seeing everything that had come before in a state of disrepair, was wonderful.

    Great work, and I can only echo others in saying that it’s one of the best mods I’ve played.

  18. Seniath says:

    Not really sure where to start. All the prior posts have pretty much covered what I want to say about this mod, so I will just ask one question;
    Why isn’t Adam Foster working for Valve, or another professional games studio? That this mod is the work of /one/ man makes me wonder what he could come up with if given the resources of such a studio.

  19. Andrew says:

    It’s worth saying that I actually felt really vengeful and unmerciful when I finally got my weapons back in Depth Charge, and slaughtered Combine with a viciously contorted grin all over my face.

    Emotional response! To a mod!

  20. Wes says:

    It’s interesting to see how this fits into the Half-Life universe and, like Star Wars before it, how fan fiction can fill in the spaces and give you endless permutations on the original. There’s a rich vein of material to be used and I can only hope there’s some of Adam in future Valve products.

  21. Chis says:

    Here’s why this still betrays signs of being a fan-made mod, and is not a professional production: at one point during the game, you have to find some new weapons before proceeding. It is possible to completely ignore the armoury (which is NOT obvious to get to), and make the rest of the mod impossible to complete.

    For that, this mod gets a resounding thumbs down. Production values be damned.

  22. Average Joe says:

    Chis, did you even bother playing Minerva seriously? You’re not supposed get weapons until later on. What you’re supposed to do is keep moving forward, fighting on without the use of weaponry. In fact, when you do get a weapon, it’s not even in an armory!

  23. Dave says:

    SOMEBODY GIVE THIS BLOKE A JOB!?! Several hours (for me) of pure enigmatic atmospheric brilliance!

  24. Erik says:

    This mo- sorry, GAME rocks, but like Sören, I’m waiting to play this until I get my new computer. For me though, the waiting time will be more than half a year until I can afford it =] I’m missing out on some great things indeed, this mod and the Orange Box games included. :d

  25. Christopher says:

    this is great, great stuff. the level design is truly awesome – both optical and in gameplay. thanks a lot Adam Foster.
    but it is a pity that Minerva’s messages are text only. it just breaks the visual presentation and the general atmosphere in those text-on-screen moments. I’d be curious to know if that was an artistic decision (not giving her a voice means not giving away anything about her) or for lack of a good sound designer and voice actor. truth is most mods or fanfilms suffer from horrible voice acting (and sound quality), but I’m sure Foster could find capable people to give his brilliant work the last polish.

  26. stefan2904 says:

    Great Mod! Get it and play it!

  27. Danner says:

    This thing has the most fantastic level design I’ve ever seen in a non-commercial game. Coupled with good writing, very good use of music and a few “whoa” moments (bottom of lvl 3, you’ll know when you get there) that surpassed anything offered by HL2:Ep2 by far – this thing is right up there with Portal in enjoyability.

  28. LarixUthule says:

    While I thoroughly enjoyed HL2 Episodes 1 and 2, Minerva gave me moments filled with something very close to terror: this is a game worth playing. It is art.

  29. Ant says:

    I finished the last two chapters last night. Great mod!

  30. Rajorg says:

    Sweet!! I just found out about this mod last night and beat it a few minutes ago. IT’S AMAZING.
    I heard the guy who made it (Adam Foster) was given a job by Valve. Correct me if I’m wrong though.

  31. dedo says:

    Is there a way to “toss” weapons out of the inventory. Valve didn’t program this, but there must be a console command or something…..you can enjoy Depth Charge with weaponry by “tossing” your weapons past the deatomizer (weapon confiscator), so I have been told anyway.

  32. PHeMoX says:

    “I heard the guy who made it (Adam Foster) was given a job by Valve. Correct me if I’m wrong though.”

    Last I heard was that he was never approached by them, but he’s been uhm ‘silent’ for a long time now.

  33. fuggles says:

    Played this after reading that R&D (amazing mod) is this years minerva – Is it heck!

    This was not a good use of my time. I spent way too long stuck in places with no sign posting (plasma buffers/portal room) as to what I was supposed to do next. Infinitely respawning enemies were another particular treat.

    At one point I pressed two red buttons….who knows what they did!? Help me minerva, give me some textual feedback!

    Some of the world is very well crafted, namely the external parts and the portal room, but I hope that the author learns how to signpost better whilst at valve. I spent FAR too long wandering about lost, stuck and bored.

    That said, the last chapter, which was very pointed and driven did renew my interest and felt really fun. So for part 1 good, part 4 good. Part 2 and 3, not good.

  34. Dracko says:

    Maybe you should suck less at the game?

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